Saturday, May 03, 2008

David Hackworth: An Appreciation

Hackworth (right) with S.L.A. Marshall in Vietnam (1966)
There's a guy in virtually every organization who is a pop-off, and David Hackworth fit that description perfectly.

But unlike most pop-offs, this man – the most highly decorated soldier in American military history – was reliably on target. So much so that his career ended with the threat of a court martial because of his scathing criticism of the Vietnam War, but his legacy as an eccentric but fearless and brilliant officer and motivator of soldiers has lived on.
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Hackworth escaped a rough childhood and juvenile delinquency by joining the Merchant Marine at age 14 as World War II was winding down, and at age 15 had a wino sign an affidavit stating the he had his father's permission to join the Army. He was a sergeant by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

In Korea, Hackworth fought with the 25th Recon Company, 8th Rangers, and then the 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Light Infantry Division, winning a battlefield commission as a lieutenant and the first several of the many medals he would win for valor. Within a year, he was promoted to first lieutenant and then captain, picking up several Purple Hearts along the way.

Hackworth later famously remarked of the that "[General] MacArthur had said we had be home before Christmas; I guess his supply people believed him, because the Chinese caught us with our pants down and they were summer trousers."

He was demobilized after Korea but grew bored after finishing two years of college and reentered the Army in 1956.

He found that the Army, preoccupied with the Cold War, had become a rather different place, and spent several years on garrison duty in Germany sharpening his leadership skills before volunteering for the advisory company that President Kennedy ordered sent to South Vietnam in 1963. His request was denied on the extraordinary grounds that he had "too much" combat experience for the mission.

But within two years the Army was desperate for people like now-Major Hackworth and he was deployed to South Vietnam as an operations office and battalion commander, becoming the leader of the 101st Airborne Division's first Tiger Force. It was in this role that his notoriety as an eccentric but effective officer grew, in part because he figured in several books written by S.L.A. "Slam" Marshall, the famous combat historian and commentator.

After a stateside tour at the Pentagon, now-Lieutenant Colonel Hackworth co-wrote The Vietnam Primer with Marshall after returning to Vietnam in the winter of 1966-67. The controversial book recommended using some of the same tactics as Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, as well as the Viet Cong guerrillas who were giving the U.S. military fits despite its ever growing presence -- and number of casualties.

Inevitably, Hackworth soured on the war but refused to resign, feeling that it was his duty as a field grade officer to wage the campaign as best he could.

Hackworth put his theories about guerrilla warfare into practice in 1969 with a battalion of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta. He turned an underperforming unit largely made up of draftees into the counterinsurgent "Hardcore" Battalion (Recondo), but felt that the Army was not learning from its mistakes and was being undermined by a corrupt South Vietnamese Army officer corps.

In early 1971, Hackworth was promoted to the rank of full colonel and received orders to attend the Army War College, a stepping stone to a general officer-grade promotion. Utterly fed up with the war and the Army, he declined to go and in a June 1971 television interview on ABC’s "Issues and Answers" strongly criticized U.S. commanders in Vietnam, said the war could not be won and called for the U.S. to withdraw.

The interview enraged senior officers at The Pentagon and Hackworth was nearly court-martialed. Beset with personal problems, including a divorce, he retired and moved to Australia in an effort to rebuild his life.

In an improbable turn, Hackworth invested in a duck farm and popular restaurant near Brisbane and soon made a fortune through real estate investing, but he again grew restless and returned to the U.S. in the mid-1980s to work as a contributing editor on defense issues for Newsweek. He also made regular television appearances to discuss military-related topics, notably the shortcomings of the U.S. military, and was among the first people to speak out about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder based on his own experiences in overcoming it.

In 1989, Hackwork published About Face: The Odyssey of An American Warrior with Julie Sherman.

The lengthy book is a must-read for any serious student of the Vietnam War (see the post below for other recommendations) and sheds a great deal of light on the enormous conflicts and complexities in the life of a man who was a natural-born killer yet abhorred war, could be a raving egomaniac yet humbled himself before his soldiers, decried the "perfumed princes" who rose to the top of Army yet was himself exceedingly ambitious.

In the mid-1990s, Hackworth investigated Admiral Jeremy Michael Boorda, then Chief of Naval Operations, questioning Boorda's wearing of potentially unauthorized V ( for valor) devices on his Navy Achievement Medal and Navy Commendation Medal. Boorda committed suicide before he could be interviewed by Hackworth, and questions later arose as to whether Hackworth had earned some of his many medals.

Hackworth was a frequent TV news talking head in the early days of the Iraq war. He was criticized for his declarations that too few U.S. troops had been committed and that they were unprepared for the challenges of fighting a counterinsurgency war because the lessons of Vietnam that he so well understood had never been taken to heart.

While certainly not a matter of having the last laugh, Hackworth was prescient about Iraq, although he did not live out the third year of the war. He contracted bladder cancer, possibly from his exposure to the Agent Blue defoliant used in Vietnam, and died three years ago tomorrow.

Hackworth earned over 90 decorations, including a Distinguished Service Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, a Silver Star with five Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Legion of Merit with three Oak Leaf Clusters. But he was most proud of his Combat Infantryman Badge, which he wore on the lapels of sports jackets in retirement.

Colonel David Hackworth is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Click here for a contrarian view of Hackworth by James Joyner at Outside the Beltway.

This is the 15th in a series of appreciations of the people who have moved and inspired me over the years. It is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Hackworth.

Previous appreciations have included Duane Allman, Hoagie Carmichael, John Coltrane, Aaron Copland, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, St├ęphane Grappelli, Learned Hand, Jack Kerouac, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro, Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you for this tribute and summary of Col. David Hackworth's life and contributions to out country.

Did you by chance hear the story on NPR this morning (5/6/08) about the "new" counterinsurgency doctrine that got Petraeus his new job?

I would love to open up a discource with you about Hackworth. I can be contacted by email at lyell [at] 93octane [dot] com.

Anonymous said...

I don't need a contrarian view of The Hack. He was a warrior, a patriot, and a stud. He gave most of his life to fight against the careerist mentality of the Army, and refused to shed his men's blood to make himself look good. You picked a good person to be moved and inspired by. Those who would dish dirt on The Hack simply do not understand the inner workings of a man who put others before himself. Servant leaders are rare, and he was indeed that.
Lt. A.

Anonymous said...

He didn't think much of Ollie North either.

Ned Ludd said...

I must be missing something. One would think that one or two purple hearts would be enough for him in Korea. Furthermore he was in Vietnam from 65/66 to 71. It took him that long to see that he was wrong?

He was "bored" so he rejoined the army. He seemed to believe in the "counter-insurgency" in Vietnam. So he was a good soldier that apparently rarely questioned the political motives sending him to war.

boba said...

In early 1971, Hackworth was promoted to the rank of full colonel and received orders to attend the Army War College, a stepping stone to a field-grade promotion.
Ummm, Maj, Ltc, and Col are Field Grade Officers. The class you are looking for is Flag or General Officers. (Colonels also command flag operations in certain situations.)

Shaun Mullen said...


Fixed. Danke.